The Sleep of the Just

I try not to use the word I. I try not to be too "self-referential" or self-consciously "literary." But 1997 wasn't exactly the kind of movie year that made me feel "cinematic." As I looked over my writing for the past year, I was struck by how often I used the pathetic word just -- not the synonym for "fair" or "right" but rather the synonym for "merely." Typically I described the characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as "just the wilted remnants left in an abandoned flower-shop refrigerator," and I called the film's director and screenwriter "brutal yard boys, just mowing a coarse and ugly path through a wild and unpredictable growth of madcap mores." I noted that Richard Gere's performance in Red Corner "isn't just self-contained, but vacuum-packed." After quoting the Chinese legal motto in that movie ("Leniency for those who confess. Severity for those who resist."), I asked, "How about leniency for those who just want a good movie?" And that was the central critical question of 1997.

Both the big studios and the independents got stuck in their respective sewers of cliche: conflagrations, computer graphics, and crazy comedies in the case of the former; dysfunctional families, kooky proles, and dropouts (whether foreign, as in The Full Monty, or domestic, as in Box of Moonlight) -- plus period floss-and-dross (Mrs. Brown) -- for the latter. Some of the most highly promoted and lauded films from either big-studio or indie filmmakers, such as Titanic and Boogie Nights, turned out to be sorry excuses for "events." What I want from a movie such as Titanic, or from any reality-based disaster film, are the facts of life and death -- and "the reasons why." That's what I got: unfortunately not from James Cameron's $200 million megaepic but instead from watching again the 1958 British black-and-white classic A Night to Remember, which calmly laid out the ship's misfortunes.

Working with nearly two additional hours of screen time than was afforded the '58 film, Cameron doesn't even touch on crucial elements that the British team conveyed as a matter of course: like the presence of another ship, the Californian, only ten miles away, maddeningly oblivious to the Titanic's distress calls because 24-hour radio operation wasn't yet required. Cameron so single-mindedly wants to blame the ship's demise on upper-crust arrogance and sloppiness -- on the owner's determination to make headlines by reaching New York City in record time -- that he slights the array of details that would actually catch you up in an absorbing web of suspense. He doesn't give much credence to the traditional R.M.S. Titanic myth of honest boatmen doing their professional duty, and aristocrats and plutocrats alike behaving according to the standards of high-society chivalry. So instead of people staring into the face of their mortality and trying to keep their footing when their world takes a catastrophic tilt, Cameron provides unrelieved chaos and the sham romanticism of vagabond artist Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) saving the body and soul of Philadelphia crumpet Rose (Kate Winslet). Billy Zane, as Winslet's sadistic fiance, is so obviously sexually confused that I expected him to put on a dress when escaping with the women and children. No such luck: Apart from the penny-dreadful dialogue, Titanic isn't even good for a laugh.

And what of Boogie Nights? People desperate for amusement -- or somehow genuinely tickled -- argued that this candy-colored promenade through the Seventies' porn boom was something other than an inflated version of the alternative-family fantasies that have inundated art theaters in the Nineties. I agreed with porn aficionado and Salon columnist Susie Bright, who wrote, "With as much affection as [Director Paul Thomas] Anderson shows for his little porn stars, they sure are a bunch of dopes. They are so stupid -- it's like one big, unending Polish joke. If you have a big dick, you must be an idiot."

With few exceptions the handful of prestige moviemakers who possess the clout to do an artist's work have ascended to a gassy high ground. If Buddhism encourages its followers to remain focused and serene amidst a welter of contemporary complexities, it inspires directors such as Jean-Jacques Annaud in Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese in his Dalai Lama hagiography Kundun to evade complexities altogether in favor of exotic filigree. The erudition of the East becomes fodder for designer religion, a sort of Gucci Buddhism. It resembles nothing more than the "Circle of Life" in the once-again-hot The Lion King, supposedly moving us all "From despair and hope/Through faith and love/... In the circle of life."

Buddhists want to free us from our egos. That may be a noble goal for most people and a necessary one for Oliver Stone, who once described himself as an "incipient Buddhist" (before tanking with U-Turn). But it's generally a fatal one for directors, who forget everything they know about human nature once they partake of cosmic wisdom. Kundun gives nonviolence a bad name: In it the Dalai Lama doesn't even seem to master nonviolent resistance -- his version comes off as glorified passivity.

Kundun is a one-of-a-kind movie (and we can hope it will be the only of its kind): an official film biography of the head of a religion. But it fashions a lousy case for that religion as the basis for a theocracy. A coddled Tibetan boy gets snatched out of obscurity, initiated into esoteric rites, schooled in Karma 101, and abruptly accepted as the savior of his nation. The Dalai Lama keeps asking what his people think about the threat of the Chinese Communists, but Scorsese's dramatization doesn't demonstrate that the Dalai Lama is capable of leading them. (The Lion King's Simba was more credible.) About the only thing that makes this a religious experience is that you have to take everything on faith. The Last Emperor wasn't a great movie, but at least it had some distance from its subject. Kundun is like The Last Emperor without a payoff: Once again the Communists move into a cloistered city and confront the hereditary ruler, but this time he doesn't get reeducated. The Dalai Lama says he was ready to reform his country before the Communist takeover, but the film doesn't deliver the dramatic and social-political goods to back him up.

Ever since the we-are-the-world Eighties, America's leading pop citizens have striven to find altruistic causes so pure they can't be tainted with political controversy. (Wag the Dog spoofs this impulse toward easy, unassailable charity: At one point in this unfettered political farce, musical superstars band together like the Quincy Jones gang to support a humanitarian mission -- to Albania -- that doesn't exist.) The movies I loved, or at least liked, this past year -- including TV films such as Anjelica Huston's Bastard out of Carolina, and lively diversions such as Austin Powers and Breakdown -- were bold in their ambition to provoke or to entertain, and steered clear of sanctimony. At a time when special-interest sensitivities are heightened and mass-audience sensibilities are degraded, provocation and entertainment have never been more of a challenge.

Here then are my top ten films of 1997:

L.A. Confidential: To set a hard-boiled cop film in the behavioral sink of postwar Los Angeles and leave an audience wised-up and semi-hopeful would be enough of an achievement. Doing it with the crispness and emotion of classic Hollywood and conjuring a futuristic take on the Fifties makes director Curtis Hanson's adaptation of James Ellroy's sprawling novel the best movie of the year. Hanson and Brian Helgeland's screenplay trims Ellroy's narrative and turns his gutter-literary language into juicy period patois. Hanson's design is subtle and sophisticated. Each of the tarnished cops (Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce) have defining moments that are silent: Spacey's Jack deciding to leave a tabloid payoff on a bar top, Crowe's Bud staring wretchedly in the mirror after administering a beating, Pearce's Ed realizing that a trusted mentor is a killer. And no special-effects extravaganza matched the action moviemaking of this film's final half hour, culminating in an epic shootout in which every bullet counts.

The Wings of the Dove: Director Iain Softley and writer Hossein Amini's adaptation of Henry James' 1902 masterpiece is as deft and emotionally fluid as Hanson's adaptation of Ellroy; indeed it also registers as a sort of "neonoir" -- maybe even the Ur-neonoir. It centers on a couple of smart, tainted Londoners -- a poor relation (Helena Bonham Carter) and her struggling journalist lover (Linus Roache) -- who romantically hoodwink an innocent, ailing rich American (Alison Elliott), with disastrous consequences for themselves. In an age when most English-lit adaptations buckle under the weight of dogged reverence for the source material, it's astonishing that this imaginatively faithful film has been attacked for deviating from the book -- or, in other words, for having an original interpretation of it. Updating the novel ever-so-slightly (to 1910), Softley and Amini have made a marvelous movie about the psychological toll of modernism. The emotional textures of rapture and waste reminded me of Lillian Hellman's elegiac, tormented accounts of her long-time affair with Dashiell Hammett in An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento.

Wag the Dog: Barry Levinson's best movie since Diner -- a free-swinging satire of image-making in politics and show biz, with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman hitting the comic empyrean as a low-key, new-style D.C. spin-doctor (De Niro) and a hopped-up, old-fangled Tinseltown producer (Hoffman). Each is as loose as a free-range goose, wringing appreciative groans from their respective characters' attempts to concoct a phony war in Albania to distract the public from the President's alleged misconduct with a schoolgirl. The movie's hidden irony is that it's a celebration of competence -- these marketers know precisely how to manipulate American beliefs and appetites. Abetted by supershrewd (and hilarious) supporting characters (played by Anne Heche, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin, and Denis Leary), De Niro and Hoffman cajole and improvise their way to a successful stage-management of international mock-warfare. As interpreted by Hoffman and written by David Mamet, the producer is a summary figure for an age of unmoored careerism and affluence.

Amistad: "You'll fuck it up, because you're too good with the camera." So the great Australian director Fred Schepisi told Steven Spielberg before Schindler's List (1993). Spielberg later said the remark "inspired me to do the film myself, the way I ended up doing it." Perhaps Schepisi's 1978 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith helped inspire Spielberg's slave-ship saga Amistad: Its peak scenes have the immediacy, period veracity, ferocity, and tenderness of Schepisi's overlooked epic. Spielberg's powerful rendering of an 1839 slave mutiny and its aftermath has roused the usual knee-jerk pundit reactions. Granted, Spielberg has a pernicious sentimental streak (augmented here by John Williams' music), but he also has native intelligence and an uncanny instinct for summing up the sweep of history in signal images -- such as the slave leader Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) burying his blade into the captain of La Amistad. Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins (as John Quincy Adams) are brilliant: At first they look like matched opposites of intuitive and cerebral leadership; by the end they're more like spiritual twins.

Nightjohn: Sometimes a filmmaker can pour ideas he was hatching for one movie into another that gets funded. While developing Nightjohn (which premiered on cable but has been screened at film festivals), the gifted Charles Burnett must have used his research for an unrealized project about Frederick Douglass to add texture and detail to Gary Paulsen's teen novel Nightjohn. Despite his film's awkward, prosy patches, Burnett delivers a surprisingly full account of slave life in the 1850s, as well as a potent fable of literacy. Carl Lumbly brings bedrock conviction to the character of Nightjohn, who feels that his people can't begin to know who they are (or what they can do) until they can spell their names. Lumbly makes you believe that this Johnny Appleseed of reading and writing would return to slavery from a free life up North and risk mutilation for his teaching. And Allison Jones is pleasingly unactressy as Sarny, his twelve-year-old disciple. With these two and Lorraine Toussaint (as Sarny's surrogate mother) providing a strong core, Burnett is able to throw the supporting cast some brilliant bits. For one whole astonishing minute, Bill Cobbs, as a slave called Old Man, bitterly spits out the alphabet, conveying hidden danger and tragedy in every letter. The scenes between the driven plantation owner (Beau Bridges) and his restive son recall the eloquent tension of the Southern major and his son in 1943's The Ox-Bow Incident, which I mean as high praise.

When We Were Kings: Athletic feats are often described as poetry in motion, but a Muhammad Ali fight, good or terrible, was an act of imagination that the imaginer worked out before our eyes. That was never more the case than with his most astonishing triumph, the "Rumble in the Jungle" -- Ali's October 30, 1974, title bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, that climaxes Leon Gast's exuberant and thrilling documentary. (It won the 1996 Academy Award for best documentary but only played in wide release this past year.)

As Gast lays it out with the help of Ali's 1991 biographer Thomas Hauser and eyewitnesses Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, who appear in on-screen interviews, sportswriters considered the then-32-year-old Ali hopelessly mismatched against the surly 26-year-old Foreman. In the superb cutting between Gast's shot-in-Zaire footage and the new interviews with the experts, we get to hear Mailer describe Foreman punching an indentation the size of a watermelon into the heavy bag and then see Foreman doing it. Taylor Hackford directed the Nineties interviews and pitched in on the editing; but Mailer is, next to Ali himself, the film's creative star. His acute and gutsy observations are what great journalism is all about.

Conspiracy Theory: Directed by Richard Donner, coproduced by Donner with Joel Silver (the pair created the Lethal Weapon franchise), and written by Brian Helgeland (cowriter of L.A. Confidential), the best of '97's summer movies gives slick a good name. It doesn't have the shock or originality of a classic such as The Manchurian Candidate, but it doesn't deteriorate into a mass of effects, either. The cogs interlock; the loose screws enhance rather than detract from the alternate-universe plausibility of the unhinged cabby hero, Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), a paranoid whose delusions about government plots have a scary way of coming true. As Fletcher and classy Department of Justice lawyer Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts) elude competing government agencies, they gun down the amorous barriers between them. The effect is double-barreled bittersweet. What stays with you is the characters' expressions -- Gibson and Roberts give their best star performances.

The Designated Mourner: In David Hare's spare, absorbing version of Wallace Shawn's spiky, paradoxical stage play, Mike Nichols' portrait of an educated yet hollow and debased Everyman is a film-acting debut that makes other movie turns look like puny dry runs. He locks us into the melodious whining of the antihero Jack, a "former student of English literature who went downhill from there." Jack, his wife Judy (Miranda Richardson), and her poet-intellectual father Howard (David de Keyser) describe both a marital and a political catastrophe -- a crackdown on dissident thinkers in the unnamed nation. Judy and Howard become martyrs; Jack drops them at a crisis point. Together the trio generates an apocalyptic heat. You may wince at Jack's loathsomeness, but Nichols is so magnetically, infuriatingly entertaining you can't tune out anything he says. You grow addicted to his verbal buzz. Jack's motivation is straightforward: He wants to survive. What makes his story arresting is that Nichols and Shawn illuminate how this ethical speck of a person can be emotionally and intellectually complicated.

Rough Magic: As she showed in her debut film, the seductively enchanting High Season (1987), director Clare Peploe knows how to use exotic locales to catalyze farce, mystery, and lovemaking. This comically haywire high-wire act, set (like L.A. Confidential) in the atomic Fifties (and now available on video), is about magic as illusion and magic as genuine miracle, and it shuffles the two inventively. Bridget Fonda plays an L.A. magician's assistant who runs away from her uranium-honcho fiance to Mexico, where she teams up with Alex Ross (Russell Crowe, also from L.A. Confidential), a Bogart-cynical reporter, and Doc Ansell (Jim Broadbent), a British quack on a quest for a mind-blowing Indian elixir. As the movie roves into the Mayan heartland, it generates a mystic aura: The physical ruins of a vanished civilization merge with the craggy grandeur of the surroundings. This Lost World, unlike Spielberg's, has spiritual and emotional dimensions -- but it never evaporates into a New-Age fog. The action is too goofy and iconoclastic. Broadbent is the standout in a seamless, slaphappy ensemble; it takes an actor with his gusto, wisdom, and authority to bring off phrases such as "as the fates would have it."

Old Man: Arliss Howard gives a staggering performance as a convict who rescues a pregnant woman during the horrifying 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. What starts as a mission of salvation becomes a picaresque adventure, as he and the woman (and soon her baby, too) drift on and off the river -- the Old Man of the title -- into uncharted swamps. This fellow is determined to save his human cargo. Dramatizing the sustaining power of an ordinary man's self-made ethic has defeated many an American writer, but, in his original story, William Faulkner did it without sentimentality or false rhetoric. And in John Kent Harrison's movie version, which premiered on TV's Hallmark Hall of Fame, the prisoner gets a taste of tenderness as he forges a bond with his traveling mate.

This may be a TV film, but it has a spaciousness and lift that belong on the big screen. Howard catches you up in the eddies of the hero's confused emotions, just as director Harrison plunges you into the vortices and muck of the floodlands and the bayou. It's a rich backstage joke that Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays the woman with warmth and empathy, previously costarred in 1995's Waterworld, an action film that set pre-Titanic budget records creating an aquatic planet and putting it at the service of a feeble ecological fable. Old Man, doubtless made for a pittance, uses a scary watery reality as the setting for a roiling saga of birth and rebirth.

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